Weapons of Mass Preservation

In an ideal world, arms sales are hardly the tool the United States would use to win stability and influence. America does not, however, exist in an ideal world, nor in one that it can suddenly reform with good intentions and soft power. Those pressuring Congress to kill the Bush administration’s proposed $20 billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf states need to step back into the real world.

America has vital long-term strategic interests in the Middle East. The gulf has well over 60 percent of the world’s proven conventional oil reserves and nearly 40 percent of its natural gas. The global economy, and part of every job in America, is dependent on trying to preserve the stability of the region and the flow of energy exports.

Washington cannot — and should not — try to bring security to the gulf without allies, and Saudi Arabia is the only meaningful military power there that can help deter and contain a steadily more aggressive Iran. (Disclosure: the nonprofit organization I work for receives financing from many sources, including the United States government, Saudi Arabia and Israel. No one from any of those sources has asked me to write this article.) We need the support of the smaller gulf states as well, but Saudi Arabia underpins any effort at regional security cooperation and in dealing with Iranian military adventures and acquisition of nuclear weapons.

This means mutual tolerance and respect. Saudi Arabia is not the United States, and reform there is going to be slow and often focused more on economic development and the quality of governance than on democracy and human rights. Reform, however, does happen. Saudi cooperation in counterterrorism still has limits, but it has steadily improved. For all the rather careless talk about Saudi nationals entering Iraq to fight a jihad, the numbers of volunteers total some 10 to 25 a month.

Moreover, the United States is in a poor position to criticize Saudi support of its positions in Iraq and the Arab-Israeli peace process. Sunni Arabs like the Saudis have every reason to accuse the Bush administration of being slow to realize it was backing a political process in Iraq that has led to the broad sectarian “cleansing” of Sunnis in key cities like Baghdad and that has so far deprived them of a fair share of political power and Iraq’s wealth. Until the last few months, when the administration suddenly rediscovered the importance of the Arab-Israeli peace process, Saudi Arabia was pushing harder for a deal than Washington was.

Critics of the Saudi arms deal have also taken aim at the administration’s proposed increases in military aid to Israel and Egypt. That, too, is misguided. The success of Israel’s peace with Egypt and Jordan is heavily dependent on American military aid to Egypt.

Israel itself faces new threats and must maintain its conventional military edge; it must adapt to new asymmetric threats from Iran, Syria and Hezbollah, and it has to deal with the growing possibility of an Iranian nuclear threat to its very existence. Helping Israel deal with conventional threats through arms sales frees it to deal with those other threats on its own, and produces far more stability in the region than would a weak Israel, which might have to strike pre-emptively or overreact.

Equally important, the proposed arms sales are not going to produce sudden shifts in the military balance or a new regional arms race. While the scope of the Israel deal — more than $30 billion over the next 10 years — seems huge, it really means deliveries over a decade at a cost one-third higher than in the past. Given the steadily rising cost of arms technology, Israel may not “break even” in terms of actual numbers of weapons delivered. Egypt will get substantially less down the road, but enough to show that it has parity in some key types of weapons and to be a significant potential partner in any future broader regional struggle.

Sales to Saudi Arabia will take place with or without the United States — from Europe, Russia or China. It will take more than a decade for the weapons to be delivered and fully absorbed into Saudi forces. They will help the kingdom deal with a growing Iranian missile threat, give it the precision-strike capability that can deter Iranian adventures, and update Saudi forces that have lagged in a number of important areas.

Until we wake up in a perfect world, we must build strong security relations with allies that are sometimes less than perfect. We also must not discriminate between Israel and Arab allies, which would undercut our national interest and maybe actually weaken Israeli security by increasing Arab hostility to both Israel and the United States. This is particularly true when the motive for such discrimination is domestic political posturing and self-advantage, rather than a serious concern for America’s role in the world.

Anthony H. Cordesman, a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.